Another day, another model “proving” capabilities of weather-dependent power

On January 25, 2016 the NOAAnews (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency news) web site published a brief article with the following alluring headline:

Rapid, affordable energy transformation possible
NOAA, CIRES study: Wind, sun could eclipse fossil fuels for electric power by 2030

As the headline creator hoped, I couldn’t resist reading more. I was shocked, shocked to find that a headline was not fully representative of the article below it or of the work being reported.

Aside: Just kidding about being shocked. Not only is it impossible to fit the details of a lengthy study into two sentence fragments, but headlines have a different purpose than the articles below them. Both headlines and articles have different purposes and limitations when compared to studies. End Aside.

Please note the careful choice of the phrase “eclipse fossil fuels for electric power.” The openly available Supplementary Information from the study reveals that the cost-optimized electric power system that the study models for 2030 will depend on burning a large quantity of natural gas.

The headline writer can honestly — but somewhat deceptively — say that use of fossil fuels is “eclipsed” by wind and solar energy because the model shows that more than 50% of the electricity on an annual basis is produced by either solar collectors or wind turbines.

Here is another statement from the supplementary information that many of the people who are already promoting this study via various outlets would prefer to keep in the deep background.

We assumed that all existing (as of 2012) nuclear plants and conventional hydroelectric dams would continue to run through 2030.
(Page 20 of Supplementary Information)

It is a surprisingly inaccurate assumption that was already provably false at the time it was made. In 2012, both San Onofre and Vermont Yankee were operating. Exelon had already announced that Oyster Creek would be closed in 2019, but the plant was still operating in 2012 so the model includes its output all the way through 2030.

The authors can be forgiven for assuming that Pilgrim and Fitzpatrick would continue operating through 2030; Entergy had not yet announced their closure by the time that the paper was submitted for peer review.

Though I don’t track dam news very closely, I am aware that several hydroelectric facilities are under pressure to stop generating and to restore natural river flows, so that part of the assumption is also questionable.

Here is another part of the modeling assumption that might cause consternation among people who may believe that it provides backing for the 100% unreliable power scenarios heavily promoted by Mark Z. Jacobson and his minions.

Although not typically done, we allowed some restricted dispatch ability for nuclear and hydroelectric (described in subsection 1.6) about set values that are computed below. Nuclear power plants can alter their output to follow the electric load, although this is not standard procedure in the US. Currently, however, in France they do regularly as 77% of their electricity is provided by nuclear.

Though it takes some careful reading, the model supporting this research does not include the all-electric power vision promoted by S. David Freeman and Leah Y. Parks. There is no attempt to model the effects of converting large portions of industrial process heat and transportation to use electric power instead of direct fossil fuel burning.

The study concludes that investing in a large building program for unreliable energy collection systems (wind turbines and solar panels) plus an enormous High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission system whose cost is modeled as a constant amount per mile without any acknowledgement of urban versus rural, mountains versus plains, or rivers versus dry land will have an impact on CO2 emissions.

The magnitude of that impact might disappoint some of the true believers in the 100% WWS mirage.

Our results show that when using future anticipated costs for wind and solar, carbon dioxide emissions from the US electricity sector can be reduced by up to 80% relative to 1990 levels, without an increase in the levelized cost of electricity.
(Emphasis added.)

When all energy use sectors are included, the 80% reduction from the electricity sector doesn’t sound as impressive.

The new paper suggests the United States could cut total CO2 emissions 31 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 by making changes only within the electric sector, even though the electrical sector represents just 38 percent of the national CO2 budget.

I also dislike summaries that use phrases like “up to” instead of reporting the actual range of values. In this case, the paper authors ran their model with three scenarios. Each run produced a different amount of CO2 reduction; the numerical range was quite large.

  • Low-cost RE High-cost – 78.7% reduction in CO2 from 1990
  • NG Mid-cost RE Mid-cost – 61.6% reduction in CO2 from 1990
  • NG High-cost RE Low-cost NG – 33% reduction in CO2 from 1990

With the three scenarios, the range of CO2 reduction from the electric power sector was 33%-78.7%. The range of reductions for total CO2 of all energy sectors was 13%-38%.

There are plenty of other details that were not mentioned in the brief article published by NOAAnews. Thankfully, the authors of the study took the time to provide a section in their Supplementary Information titled Summary of Assumptions and Key Model Features. It starts on page 63.

The bottom line here is that the joint NOAA-CIRES paper titled Future cost-competitive electricity systems and their impact on US CO2 emissions does not support the viability of a 100% wind, water, solar power system.

Corrected copy (January 28, 2016 at 5:44 PM EST) The initial version of this article incorrectly stated that the study should be attributed to individual researchers and not the institutions they work for. The NOAA’s public affairs office corrected that description. The study and its resulting published paper was an official collabortive work that was vetted and reviewed through the organizational review and approval process for both NOAA and CIRES.

In addition, since publishing the first version, I have read the full published paper and will be providing additional commentary in a future post, so the “Disclosure” about not having read the paper has been eliminated.

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